Skills over passion

Key takeaways about optimizing for skills over passion from the book 'So good they can't ignore you' by Cal Newport.

Skills over passion
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.’ This is one of the controversial messages from the book I just finished reading: So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport. I have been advising my juniors to follow their passion. But, Cal presented some very logical arguments to make me think this is bad advice. How? What’s good advice, then? Let’s find out.

The passion hypothesis

The passion hypothesis says we can become happy if we match our job to our pre-existing passion. In general, this makes sense. However, there are a few issues.

First, it assumes that everyone has a ‘pre-existing’ passion. Most people don’t. Especially when we talk about passion, in which they have some expertise. Most people either admit to not having a passion or confuse passion with a hobby. For example, reading books and writing blogs are my hobbies. I definitely enjoy them, but they do not contribute much to my life motivation. Cal argues that true passion comes later as a result of acquired expertise in a field. Because of this, passion is rare.

The second issue is the result of something Cal calls a passion mindset. We focus on what value a job offers us. A specific focus on this makes us hyper-aware of the things we do not like about a job. So, something that starts out as a passion (more like a hobby) soon becomes boring.

We will see later in the control traps that this passion hypothesis makes people quit their jobs and don’t do so well by following their misidentified passion. We have been mostly exposed to the success stories of the passion hypothesis. But, in general, there are a lot more failure stories.

Elements of an enjoyable job

So, instead of finding a passion, we should focus on what makes a job more enjoyable. Most desirable jobs have some common elements. Cal mentioned creativity, impact, and control (autonomy). I believe there are more. The Octalysis framework by Yu-Kai Chou explains it better.

All these are valuable elements. Cal argues that whether a person will enjoy a job or not has less to do with the type of the job and more to do with how much control and expertise a person has for that job. Any job can be fun if it offers these valuable elements. But, to get them, we need to offer something valuable in return.

Most jobs, in the beginning, do not offer much autonomy. This is a stage where we are still improving at work. Once we gain some expertise, we can get more control. This control, along with expertise, makes a job a lot more fun. I experienced this when I got promoted to a level 4 software engineer (who is expected to work without much guidance) at Google. The job became a lot more fun.

Another common element in people who enjoy their work is a Mission. Most people don’t have one. But the ones who have it, really enjoy their work. Finding a great mission is hard. Cal argues that it is quite similar to discovery in science. It happens in the ‘adjacent possible’. That is basically near the limit of existing knowledge, from where discovery is just a small step. So, to find a good mission, one needs to be an expert in the field.

In all cases, these desired elements require us to provide value. Hence, we should focus on being good at the job and providing value. Cal calls it acquiring career capital. This is where the craftsman’s mindset helps us.

Craftsman’s mindset

A craftsman’s mindset is when we think about what we can produce in our job. This is the opposite of the passion mindset, where we think about what the job produces for us. The craftsman’s mindset is a key to career happiness.

For most jobs, expertise is a good predictor of whether we will like it. And, in most jobs, skills can be improved. In the beginning, of course, we don’t get autonomy. But instead of calling the job boring and quitting it to find an ill-defined passion, we should try to get better at it. As per the 10,000 hours rule, being good at anything requires a practice of 10,000 hours in general. A continuous focus on stretching our skills and continuous feedback can ensure that we get better without getting stuck at a skill level.

Control traps

Regarding control, Cal talks about two traps. First is when we seek control without getting the necessary career capital. This is where people feel courageous and quit their boring job to gain autonomy. This is dangerous. In the book, Cal provided many examples of how this can lead to failure.

The second trap is the opposite. When we have a lot of career capital, we are quite valuable. This is where we should try to gain control. However, this is not an easy process. Our employer or society can provide some resistance. This is where we need the courage to ask for control.

But how do we know if we have acquired sufficient career capital or not? One way is to use the financial viability law. Are people willing to pay us for our skills? If not, we do not have enough career capital and should focus on improving our skills.

To conclude, we should focus on getting better at our work instead of looking for matching work to a pre-existing passion. Passion for work is rare and usually comes from great skills.

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Quote: “If you spend too much time focusing on whether or not you’ve found your true calling, the question will be rendered moot when you find yourself out of work.” — from So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport

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